Restrictions on Free Speech

Blair’s crackdown on freedom is an inspiration to tyrants

If you looked behind David Cameron at yesterday’s Question Time, you would have noticed something odd. Several MPs were wearing similar and very garish ties, decorated with the kind of motif you might see on a pavement on a Saturday night. This Jackson Pollock baby-vomit neckwear was, in fact, a sign of respect.

It was to mark the passing of our colleague Eric Forth, the knuckle-dustered and fob-watched libertarian Tory, whose death is being mourned by people more deeply than they might have expected while he was alive.

We suddenly feel the loss of Eric, because we realise that he represents a strain of politician that is in danger of extinction, the man who believes that it is his job to say whatever he damn well pleases, the man who gets into the old crate marked “Free Speech”, lets off the handbrake, revs it up, and then takes it to quite terrifying speeds.

It is with awestruck admiration that I learn how this free-marketeer dealt with a tearful constituent, who told him she could not afford to live in her childhood area. Eric told her to move to a “grottier part of town”. He defended the right of Gerry Adams to speak at British universities, not because he in any way sympathised – far from it – but because he saw that repression of free speech was the action of tyrants.

In his rebarbative cynicism, his mordant clarity, he represented an authentically British school of politics, of a kind that is found hardly anywhere else in the world; and we forget how strange and precious his approach can seem to foreign eyes.

I can’t say I deeply regret the containment in Parliament Square of Brian Haw, the father of seven, anti-war loony who used to bellow at me on my bicycle. Call me finickety, but I thought his posters and general gubbins were a disgrace and spoiled the look of the place; and yet he also, like Eric, represented something dementedly British, and we should remember the impact he must have had on the world’s television audiences as they watched the prime ministerial cavalcade sweep past.

There he was, one of the most powerful men in the world, joint toppler of Saddam, barrelling past in his tint-windowed armour-plated Blairmobile; and yet every time Blair or any of us passed by, the British state was so weirdly generous that it allowed this Haw fellow to yodel his imprecations from his ragged throne; and now his freedoms have been lessened.

In the global village, people will notice, and in a small way it will make a difference. Across the world, Britain still stands for a certain idea of liberty, a particular concept of the relationship between the citizen and the state. The tragedy is not so much that this reputation is being lost, but that we are collaborating in its destruction.

I have been talking to Agnes Callamard, who leads a free speech charity called Article 19, and she tells me that wherever she now goes on her missions, she finds a shocking new phenomenon. She has just been to the Maldives, where the government is engaged in active repression of the press, shutting down radio stations and locking up journalists if they even carry quotations from the opposing MDP. When she remonstrated, she was told that any criticism was a bit rich coming from a British organisation, given that the British Government has just passed draconian new measures against incitement in the Terrorism Bill.

It was the same story in Nepal, where torture has been used regularly against opponents of the regime, and where there are similar restrictions on free speech. “A senior government official told us that they were only cracking down on terrorists, in the way that they do in the UK,” said Callamard.

The same excuse is deployed in Belarus, by the totalitarian government of Alexander Lukashenko, and of course the same logic is used by the Sri Lankans in their crackdown on the Tamil Tigers. In June 2005, the Malaysian Inspector General of Police, Tun Sri Mohamed Bakri Omar, defended Malaysia’s continuing to detain people indefinitely without charge. And how did he justify it? By reference to the Labour proposals to detain suspects without charge for 90 days.

From tyrant to tyrant, from Mubarak to Mugabe, the argument is the same: the UK and the US crack down on those who support terrorists; they pass detailed restrictions on free speech; they outlaw the glorification of terror – why shouldn’t we?

How can we urge governments to allow free speech when we round up a 25-year-old chef, Maya Evans, and prevent her from reading out the names of the Iraq war dead at the Cenotaph?

It doesn’t make it much easier for British organisations to defend liberty abroad when anti-war protesters are arrested for merely eating toast and tea in Parliament Square, or when old socialists are scragged by the police and hauled from the room for heckling Jack Straw.

Of course these analogies are opportunistic and false, and of course there is no real comparison between Britain and Malaysia, let alone Zimbabwe. Thanks to the goodness of the editor of this paper, I can say more or less whatever I want, provided it is not too catastrophic for circulation. But what Blair fails to understand, when he promulgates this endless succession of new and ineffective Criminal Justice Bills, and when he curtails trial by jury and freedom of speech, and when he enacts all the other potential erosions of liberty that we have seen over the past nine years, is that he is handing a perfect pretext to the despots of the world.

This plague of Labour legislation may not much affect the criminals and illegal asylum-seekers of Britain. But the laws give the likes of Mugabe the pleasure of saying, tu quoque: you are up to it as well.

Britain has something far more precious and more important to give the world than the £4.6 billion of overseas aid, and that is the idea of freedom. It is not shortages that cause famine, but tyranny. No tyrant can survive for too long in the face of a free press and a free civil society. The sad thing is that we are losing our moral authority to export our greatest asset.

73 thoughts on “Restrictions on Free Speech”

  1. Now, help a poor foreigner here…wasn’t it Margaret Thatcher who prohibited the broadcasting of Gerry Adams’ voice, lest it incite people to acts of terrorism?

  2. The steady erosion of our civil liberties and ancient freedoms under the delightful monika of The War on Terror angers me greatly. For all the rights and wrongs of the war in Iraq, how is it even vaguely possible to attempt to lead the world into a shiney new democracy loving place of happiness when we are passing edicts that are eroding both our own democracies and the rule of law itself.
    Outlawing the glorification of terror is a nonsense, imprisonment without trial, even within ones own home, violates our greatest gift to the world as a nation: Habeas Corpus. And yet, overall, the population of the nation seem to take these repeated punches to their freedom as if they were nothing.
    I think much of the problem lies in education, certainly when I was at school I learned nothing of these things, the Bill of Rights was, until I started looking into our political history myself in my 20s, something the American’s had, habeas corpus was a total mystery. From what I can make out, this is still the case to the maority of school leavers. It is hard to notice your rights being eroded when you didn’t actually know you had them in the first place.
    Politicians such as Forth, and hell yourself Boris, represent the best in our democracy: speaking your mind so you may actually be disagreed with; to occasionally make a fool of oneself; but, most vitally of all, to be there to defend those things that really matter to the nation.
    We must reverse this dangerous trend of eroding our liberty, if not then frankly we not only have lost this mythical war on terror, but have provided legitimacy to those who wish to repress freedom of speach and thought around the globe.

  3. Trying to get rid of Haw by retrospective legislation and arbitrary powers is absurdly unconstitutional; I couldn’t stand his terrible crudely sloganising posters, but really, not everything I don’t like should be banned.

    As for Mr Forth; whilst I disagreed with many of his stances in politics, his principle of “we *mustn’t* legislate”, edchoing Lord Salisbury’s sentiment that “the hardest thing for a government to do is nothing”, is one I heartily applaud. He will be missed.

    As for Mrs Thatcher; who says all Tories agree with everything she did? Not a very relevant point. As Mr Cameron said at the last PMQs, pointing at things over nine years ago “just won’t wash”, not in arguments over specific issues rather than, say, broadly right wing as opposed to left wing approaches to an issue.

    Interestingly enough, Lord Salisbury did predict that by this time the Conservative Party would be the defenders of liberty; his prediction of the death of socialism turned out rather poor, but on this point he was quite unerring.

    Besides, the Tory party has always believed in the rule of law, and I am not at all convinced of the legal grounding for the governments recent actions against Mr Haw.

    The no protest legislation for that area should be repealed.

  4. From tyrant to tyrant, from Mubarak to Mugabe, the argument is the same: the UK and the US crack down on those who support terrorists; they pass detailed restrictions on free speech; they outlaw the glorification of terror – why shouldn’t we? (Boris)

    I’m not in the least surprised.

    But is this really about free speech? We remain able to protest, and to protest volubly. It is simply that our protests pass entirely unheard.

    Somehow or other, democracy in both the US and the UK has more or less ceased functioning, and greater and greater power has become invested in the offices of President and Prime Minister, who have become by degrees little dictators themselves. Why should other dictators not follow their example? Why not invade countries on spurious invented pretexts? Why not confine and torture people? Why not spy on your own people?

    It is because the US and UK have ceased to be functioning democracies that so many bad laws and bad decisions are being made. For once a single individual, who consults only a few like-minded colleagues, takes complete charge of a state, the decisions he takes are certain to be crass, because they are not subject to the widest possible debate and criticism. The decisions are always going to be one man’s notion of the right thing to do, rather than the considered collective and democratic wisdom.

    And furthermore, when congress and parliament cease to have any real influence on government, congress and parliament become vacuous talking shops, mere rubber stamps for executive decisions.

    In both the US and the UK, the primary necessity now is for power to return to congress and parliament, and through them to the people. Major decisions must stop being made, largely in secret, by a few people. Instead they should be argued out openly and democratically on the floor of the houses. And this will put an end to stupid decisions being made by over-mighty executives. And it will revive real debate in the houses.

    What is needed above all is for men and women to be elected to Parliament who primarily believe, whatever their political differences, that the country is best governed by Parliament or Congress, and not by Prime Minister or President. Only then will their be any hope of sensible laws, of well-thought-out policies, and good government.

    Unfortunately, I see very little sign of any such thing happening. Instead, more and more arbitrary power is becoming invested in Prime Ministers and Presidents who simply ignore what anybody else thinks, and who are consequently bound to make terrible mistakes. And it seems that all our politicians want to become Prime Minister, and make all the decisions themselves. And, for all I know, this may well include Boris – given his admiration for Roman emperors.

  5. It’s not just that we can’t set an example to some of these dictators. We seem to be actively supporting the one in Uzbekistan.

    The oxymoron ‘political correctness’ is doing a lot to erode free speech. Political correctness has a place in the workplace, not many people go to work to argue about foreign policy or to be offended. It has no place in politics however. If people choose to become involved in political discussion then they should accept that other peoples opinions may offend them.

    Even in politicised workplaces there is a growing tendancy for people to say things like ‘you can’t say that’ and frown when you venture a right-of-centre opinion about immigration or foreign policy.

    Back to what I was saying last night, the Equality Act 2006, which strikes me as the worst ever piece of New Labour legislation, has created a charter for the establishment of a kind of ‘thought police’ that will be able to interfere with workplaces in the private sector, advertising and the media.

    The Commission for Equality and Human Rights it creates is tasked with promoting such undefinable terms as ‘diversity’ (which is defined in the legislation as ‘the fact that individuals are different’)

    The Commission will have a remit to (amongst other things) ‘promote understanding of the importance of equality and diversity’, ‘equality’ being defined as ‘equality between individuals’.

    The Commission has been granted enforcement powers such as the use of ‘action plans’ and ultimately court sanctions for people that in IT’S opinion are not valuing equality and diversity enough.

    Far from learning the lessons of the Human Rights Act the government have taken it a step further; creating an agency to enforce it to the detriment of free speech.

  6. Boris wrote – Thanks to the goodness of the editor of this paper, I can say more or less whatever I want, provided it is not too catastrophic for circulation

    What about the power of advertisers to withdraw their custom, and the power of governments to dry up the feed of news and so on?

    Boris Johnson failed to feature anyone other than Cameron during the leadership contest in the Spectator.

    Then he resigned the Spectator and got a nice little job in the Cameron team.

    When it comes to politics,
    there’s no such thing as a free hunch.

  7. Apparently, another chap who used to spout a Christian message at the corner of Oxford Circus has been given an ASBO and removed. He’d been doing this for years apparently but no more. Britain is the worse for this tyranny. But tidier? For what have we lost this liberty? Inner city housekeeping? And of course, no-one ever died in Tiananmen Square.

  8. I remember him Jaq, he used to pester the pretty ladies a lot more than the guys

  9. Boris Johnson on the repression of freedom of speech in the SOCPA Designated Area

    Boris Johnson, the Conservative MP for Henley and media personality has written about Brian Haw, Maya Evans, the Sunday tea party protests and the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 Designated Area: Restrictions on Free Speech May 25, 2006…

  10. Good post Boris. So can we expect you and your like-minded Honourable Friends to kick out the Legislative & Regulatory Reform Bill?

  11. Good post Boris. So can we expect you and your like-minded Honourable Friends to kick out the Legislative & Regulatory Reform Bill?

    No, the Conservative party did not vote against the Regulatory Reform Bill (aka the “Abolition of Parliament Bill”) on second reading. It has not remembered the great Edward Gibbon’s comment on Augustus Caesar’s Rome: ‘The principles of a free constitution are irrecoverably lost when the legislative power is nominated by the executive.’

    But on ‘freedom of speech’, I am aghast that Boris bemoans the erosion of this liberty, when the Conservative Party gags its candidates for talking about perfectly legitimate issues of inquiry.

  12. You claim to support freedom of speech, and yet you are also a vocal supporter of David Cameron, who has stated that he will rip up the Human Rights Act, the statute which guarantees freedom of speech. Isn’t that a tad inconsistent?

  13. Hmmm…

    In my haste to condemn Boris and the Tories for voting for the contemptible ‘Abolition of Parliament’ Bill, I may have missed something.

    The Tory amendment (Bill Cash’s inspiration) to override EU regulation and re-assert the supremacy of Parliament. Cash writes in the FT:

    “The Conservative party as a whole last week voted to support my backbench amendment to the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill, expressly to override the European Communities Act 1972 by providing the legislative means to deregulate European burdens on British business and make this binding on the British judiciary. The bill has now gone to the House of Lords.”

    Is this it? Liberation at last? Really? O, thank you, God, thank you, thank you, thank you.

    Sorry, Boris. Kissy, kissy, kissy.

  14. Unless the Tories specifically repudiate policies brought in by Margaret Thatcher, I hesitate to ascribe to them anything along the lines of abashedness. In other words, I think Boris is simply trying to pin on Labour something heinous indeed, but something that was started by Thatcher.

    Get the quote that proves me wrong; I will happily admit it…if you can find one.

  15. David Russel:

    The right to freedom of expression under the Human Rights Act is subject to the following (HRA1998, schedule 1, article 10(2)):

    2. The exercise of these freedoms, since it carries with it duties and responsibilities, may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society, in the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, for the protection of the reputation or rights of others, for preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence, or for maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary.


    It provides no more protection than British common law did, in fact the Human Rights Act overules British common law and could be seen as less of a protection

  16. Yes, but the Human Rights Act places a duty on courts to (‘as far as possible’ – s.3(1)) interpret all other legislation in accordance with the ECHR (including the right to freedom of speech) – even where this produces an effect that was probably not what Parliament intended to pass. This is the one thing that the old common law protection could not do, because legislation overrules common law where the two conflict.

  17. From Cranmer’s post: “The Conservative party as a whole last week voted to support my backbench amendment to the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill, expressly to override the European Communities Act 1972 by providing the legislative means to deregulate European burdens on British business and make this binding on the British judiciary. The bill has now gone to the House of Lords.””
    Hurrah! Thankyou Mr Cash!

    David Russell: The Human Rights Act is bad because it treats free speech is a privelige. It should be an expectation of the citizen. Moreover, it is ridiculous to support an act because you agree with one clause of it when you disagree with most of the others. Further, we had free speech in Britain prior to the adoption of the act. You can easily enough dig up an example of suppression of free speech from before the bill; but as seen with Mr Haw, this hasn’t changed either.

    Raincoaster: Thatcher did a lot of bad things besides good things; and I agree that the Tory party could do well to repudiate a few of her legacies. However, this would annoy more people than its benefits would be worth; as I said, Mrs Thatcher was last PM over a decade and a half ago. Quite long enough that we need not presume that the Tories automatically support any policy of hers that hasn’t been specifically repudiated.

    And as Boris said on Eric Forth: “He defended the right of Gerry Adams to speak at British universities, not because he in any way sympathised – far from it – but because he saw that repression of free speech was the action of tyrants.” This implies that Boris would be in favour of allowing Gerry Adams to speak if this was a current issue, no?

  18. Politics needs characters; people who will speak out without fear of the press or opposition politicians. We need people who will ignore those who seek to silence the majority. Enforced silence only breeds resentment and those things that some wooly-minded liberals seek to prevent by it: racism, xenophobia etc. Unfortunately, politics isn’t attracting anyone at the moment. Who even knows how to become an M.P., even where to find out more information about it as a career option? We need engaging people, not those who Tippex out the interesting bits, lest they cause offence!

  19. How to become a politician? Well, a “black welsh disabled woman” was, I believe once named by *the* Sir Humphrey as the ideal quango appointee; that would probably be the ideal MP too. Besides these natural talents, one might try getting a family with the right connections – an MP for a father or mother would be a good place to start. Next, a good plastic surgeon so that you look good for the cameras. He might even be able to sort out the black part. A bad one might be able to sort out the disabled part.

    Next up, an Oxbridge education still probably helps, likewise private school education.

    A few years working as something else is next on the checklist; in PR, perhaps, or for a charity.

    You would then send a CV to the HQ of the Tories, the Lib Dems, or Labour. I think I’ve seen application forms on their respective sites.

    If all goes well, and the right bribes are made, you’ll be onto the a-list, and jolly grateful too. Now you have to get elected as a candidate. First you have to weight for some old bugger to pop his clogs. Then; well, I believe they’ve scrapped speeches before these elections, I’m not sure. So I suppose you get voted in on a dull blurb, of the kind that may be found next to photographs of our elected representatives on the parties’ websites.

    Having been elected through this precarious pathway, you need to get elected. You also need to bite your tongue and say what the leader tells you to say. Pose for some photographs. Show how much you care about Little Piddlington on Thames.

    Green issues are a good place to start if you’re in a winnable seat. If you’re in an unwinnable seat (that means you, candidates in Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, etc – I am presuming a Tory here – well, this is a Tory MP’s site), make the right noises, try and make connections when you can, and pray for a better seat to contest next election.

    If somehow you actually get elected; well, it’s a long way to fall, and you don’t want to let all that hard work go to waste. So you do what the leader says.


    I would say though that modern society does not breed eccentrics very well.

    Things aren’t what they used to be…

    (Sorry. That was irrelevant but irresistible.)

  20. I recall the Sainted Tony Benn saying he was in favour of Adams speaking because ‘we don’t know what he stands for unless we hear him speak’. So far, so good. But would the Saint have been as resolute in defending the right of the BNP to speak? I imagine he would say ‘Ah no because they are violent racists and fascists’. Does their website say so? ‘No but evryone knows they are’. But everyone knows that Sinn Fein and the Provisional IRA are essentially the same terrorist organisation, certainly fascist in using nationalism to mobilise hatred, actually national socialist in that they (used to) call for a nationalised economy, and as many ethnic minorities in Northern Ireland have found also racist. Eric Forth, I suspect, was imeasurably more honourable than this but perhaps foolish in extending the right of free speech to those who sought to destroy us.

  21. Iain, you make some good points but Boris has been more than nominally Thatcherite, at least from the evidence on this blog. If it came down to it I think he’d rather support a Tory who had passed into the Pantheon over any current leader. I know too much about politicians to assume anything but the worst. Like I said, prove me wrong.

  22. “Britain is not Malaysia”,huh? You got that right. I’d rather live in sunny Malaysia than dreary England any day.

  23. Well said Cranmer! Why are people who sound off about England being so dreary – well so dreary! They’re obviously stuck in an early 60’s time warp that thinks that going abroad on aeroplanes with BOAC is really it!

  24. Until recently, when i came across Ranaleigh’s 1991 book ‘Thatcher’s People’ i never really equated the Conservative Party with liberalism, and I’m fully aware this is only one wing of a very varied party.
    But it’s nice to see a Tory shadow minister speak so passionately about absolute freedom of speech and true liberty in an age where a supposedly left-wing government is cracking down on our civil liberties more than any other administration we’ve had since the war. Although, I do lament that political reality did not always match with the actual theories behind Thatcherism – as mister raincoaster pointed out.

    Also, Mr Glisson – where have you been the past two months? The weather’s been beautiful! Try to be more positive. And if you still don’t like it, get the money together and move to Malaysia, I’m sure they’d treat you very nicely – that’s the great thing about freedom of movement 🙂

  25. as mister raincoaster pointed out.

    Minor correction.

    That would be Mrs raincoaster. Or more likely Ms raincoaster.

  26. Ms. Alas, the world does not contain a man brave enough to “Mrs” raincoaster (or is that “bulletproof enough”?).

    I would love to think Boris is an advocate of absolute freedom of speech, and frankly, the stuff he’s allowed on his blog speaks well to that. I’d have at least riposted (I’m quite the riposter, on my own blog) but he has let things stand even when they were actually actionable.


    After Clinton, whom I thought was a good president, I want them all to put it in writing, with restriction clauses, etc, before I believe a damn thing. Is this a purely North American thing?

  27. When politicians speak the language you want to hear, then you know you are an inch away of being screwed.

    Don not ever trust anyone in politics who is not naive enough to believe in making a difference, because they do not matter. Those who matter are the ones to fight to break through the screen of known faces and different flags.

  28. Free Speech – yes, I think it’s fine for people to be able to scrawl “Stuff The Krauts” on the George Cross.

    And if we believe in Free Speech, why am I not allowed to say ****.

    I don’t understand!!!!!!!!!!

  29. “We do have unwritten rules about expression and decency. If any language is gratuitously insulting, inflammatory or unsubstantiated then we retain the freedom to moderate”

    Yes, it’s this very same website! fredom of spech – let’s either DO IT or embrace central control but please don’t ponce around in the middle.

  30. It’s “****” (note quotation marks) and “Speech” (note two “e’s”) so please pay attention. You may say them to your heart’s content on the Borisblog.

  31. Oh, and “Freedom,” as I said, post to your heart’s content. I haven’t seen anything censored here except obvious spam, and as an anarchal communist I’d normally be the first to be censored, particularly after the review I gave to the book Boris and Melissa so kindly sent me.

  32. The fact that you may say what you wish on this blog (or mine, for that matter) is testimony to the need for PC-free arenas to discuss contentious religious or political issues.

    The fact remains, however, that what Boris permits on here is not what he practices in life.

    I have now established that Adrian Hilton’s articles for The Spectator in 2003, which highlighted the role of the Vatican in EU affairs and caused him to be sacked as a Tory candidate two years later, met with no defence by Mr Johnson. There was no appeal to ‘freedom of speech’, or an assertion that Mr Boris can criticise Islam but Mr Hilton may not question the Vatican.

    It seems Boris is very selective over when freedom of speech is a good thing… anything to do with the revelation that he’s a Catholic?

    I’m writing to Dan Brown…

  33. Raincoaster: Fair enough. I am choosing to hope and believe for the best, seeing as I expect the Tories to be in power in the not too distant future.

    Mark Adams: I believe the important word there is “language” – it’s how you express yourself, rather than what you express. Why should you ever be banned on one site or another from swearing though? Maybe other people don’t like it. It degrades the English language; and as Michael Flanders said: “These four letter words and so on. I am very much opposed to this. There are very few of these four letter words left. If they all come into common use, we shall have nothing left for special occasions.”

    Just because you can break something doesn’t mean you have to break it. It’s attractive, but really, society is so used to swearing that surely no-one gets a kick out of it any more and we may safely reclaim a higher standard of speech.

    Why would you need to swear anyway? On the whole it just shows inarticulacy. It will also tend to show that you’re not being very considered, swearing being something of an exclaimed rather than a considered reaction.

    Freedom of speech allows you to say what you like, how you like, but not necessarily where you like. You can’t run into the middle of someone’s funeral and scream invective at the top of your lungs; ideally one would never need to enforce such a law but sadly humans are flawed and stupid.

    Returning somewhat to an earlier point, if a post is inflammatory enough it may derail a good discussion and reduce it to what is known in certain environs as “flaming”, and in such a case, the post should be removed.

    As it is, this blog seem to allow you to say what you like more or less, even how you like. Though I’ve never read an especially inflammatory and/or indecent post here, so perhaps they were all moderated out before I saw them…

    Finally, what’s wrong with “ponce[ing] around the middle” on things? Indeed, with Cameron’s attack on extreme -isms, a thoroughly modern and 21st century Tory site should on all accounts *avoid* the kind of extremism you are encouraging!

    That last sounds more to do with the catholic bit to me. It isn’t good though either way, I grant.

  34. I haven’t seen anything censored here except obvious spam, and as an anarchal communist I’d normally be the first to be censored, particularly after the review I gave to the book Boris and Melissa so kindly sent me. (raincoaster)

    In this respect, the Dream of Rome thread is now knee deep with spam. And it will probably take Melissa an entire afternoon to shovel it all out.

  35. Personally I take quite an extreme line on freedom of speech. I think that absolute freedom of speech should be guaranteed by law, even including extremes such as incitement to racial/religious hatred, or incitement to violence.

    This is partly practical, how do you define what is incitement to violence, and more to the point how do you decide if it is justified? (“We will fight them on the beaches!”)

    But it’s mostly because I can think of no objective measure with which to restrict speech. I could suggest we do it according to my own preferences (no racist comments, etc.), or democratically by taking the view of the majority to be absolute. However, neither of these measures is really satisfactory, and besides, progress is generally made best by discussion, including the consideration of extremes.

    I suppose I should at this point bring up examples like galileo, so consider them brought up!

  36. Jack

    I disgree with you. Here are a few infringements of free speech I am happy with

    Maths teachers do not have the right to say that 2 + 2 = 5

    I do not have the general right to incite violence against anyone but I can think of a number of exceptions where I might be morally obliged to do so.

    No one has the right to shout ‘Fire’ in a crowded cinema (unless it’s showing the DVC of course!)

    No landlord has the right to put up a notice saying ‘No blacks’ in their window.

    Of course I have no authority to justify this. The state is a necessary evil which puts some limits on what we can do including what we say because a government in the past has decided that is a necessary measure for the relative harmony of society. Whether that is the case depends on the wisdom and honesty of that government. Who should rule? Wrong question. How do we arrange it so that governments cannot do too much harm? That is the function of democracy which is not an end in itself. Elected governements can do harm – Hitler was elected and I suspect Hamas won’t be doing anyone any favours – especially the Palestinians! Many of you think that our current government has done immense harm. On some counts I agree with you. Some of the restrictions on free speech you mention I agree are wrong IMHO. There are no absolute rules or authorities for determining which, if any, restrictions are called for. The default position in an open society is that none are called for and then government makes exceptions as it seems called for. Better have everything permitted that is not forbidden, with unsatisfactory inclusions in the forbidden list that everything forbidden that is not permitted.

    My C.S. Lewis book is on the way from Amazon.

    Have a good (remaining) Bank Holiday one and all!

  37. I think I’m with Jack Target on this one.

    Words are not in themselves harmful in the way that, say, flying bullets are. And whatever anyone says, however outrageous, it is up to those who listen whether they believe what they hear. It is not as if speech transfers ideas from one mind to another like water is poured from one jug into another.

    Seen from this point of view, nobody can really incite anybody else to do anything. Even if someone shouts “Fire!” in a crowded theatre, the assembled crowd will not necessarily immediately panic, but its constituent individuals will make their own assessments of the likelihood that there actually is a fire, and if so what might be the appropriate course of action.

    Much the same is true of a fire alarm going off. It may be a false alarm. It might be a fire drill. It may not be a fire alarm, but a burglar alarm. One episode of Fawlty Towers – The Germans – explored the many possibilities of fire alarms.

    Even asserting that 2 + 2 = 5 is permissible. One is not obliged to believe it.

    Anyway, I hope you get my drift. And it’s time for me to head off down to my local pub, and there set fire to a few cigarettes while it still remains legal to start fires, and knock back a pint of intoxicant while it is still legal to drink anything stronger than lemonade.

  38. Actually I forgot to mention, there is a limit on my absolute freedom of speech position:

    Approximately current limits (incitement to violence, incitement to hatred, etc.) should apply when it is clear that someone is targetting people who are naturally more suggestable. The only obvious group in that category are children, but I suppose people with certain mental conditions may be too.

  39. Are children suggestible?

    Whenever I suggest it’s time for them to go to bed, they don’t seem the least bit suggestible.

  40. Well said Boris, I thoroughly agree. I only hope that if the Tories do get back into power that they will actually restore our freedoms and reverse the illiberal legislation of ZaNu Labour. I’m just not convinced that they will.

  41. forgive me for being pedantic but hitler wasn’t elected, he was appointed by hindenberg as a compromise, and if the SDs and communists would have been united in the reichstag the nazis would still been a minority. the 1933 debacle was more to do with the failings of an imperfect democracy

    i have to stand with Davide on this point – sadly i don’t believe Cameron’s administration would repeal any of new labour’s infringements on our civil liberties. if they promised to do this and printed it in their manifesto however, i would have no bones about voting tory for the first time. but they’re too wet, ultra-center, and don’t really seem to stand for anything

  42. Off topic, as ever, but I’ve just discovered this – Boris’ choice of Desert Island Discs from October 2005.

    I was surprised by the large pot of French mustard.

  43. In respect of free speech, today’s Independent reports on the attack by former Friends of the Earth director Jonathan Porritt on motorhead Jeremy Clarkson:

      “In my mind this outstandingly bigoted petrolhead is partly responsible for why so many people today still somehow think that the world is going to be drawn in the image of Jeremy Clarkson rather than the image of David Attenborough and others,” Sir Jonathon said. “Anyone who can shut up Jeremy Clarkson deserves more honours than have already been heaped on David Attenborough.”

      In the past, Sir David has come under fire from environmentalists for failing to use the platform afforded him as the doyen of natural history programmes to address the threat from rising temperatures. But Sir David told The Independent last week: “I am no longer sceptical…

    I’m no great fan of Jeremy Clarkson, but he is perfectly entitled to his own opinions, which include dismissing global warming as “not even worthy of a shrug”. But Jonathan Porritt, who now heads the government’s Sustainable Development Commission, wants him to be made to “shut up”. It seems that dissent cannot be allowed. We must all toe the party line. And it would appear that, behind the scenes, the eminent David Attenborough has been found wanting in respect of global warming, but has been made to recant his former scepticism.

    How very disturbing and ugly. First Clarkson, next us. I have the growing sense that we are going to be getting more and more of this sort of imposition of doctrine from above, with its attendant suppression of dissent.

  44. Indeed, I think my good opinion of Jonathan Porritt just went up in smoke today (and thereby contributed to global warming).

    And to ascribe the responsibility for people not seeing the threat of global warming to Jeremy Clarkson is to patronise the general public. There are a great many people who are still able to make up their minds without the advice of Jeremy Clarkson, or any other celebrity. Does Porritt suppose that if a sufficient number of rock stars and celebrities endorse the threat of global warming, this in itself will suffice to shift public opinion? Is rational discussion a thing of the past?

  45. Does Porritt suppose that if a sufficient number of rock stars and celebrities endorse the threat of global warming, this in itself will suffice to shift public opinion?

    Idlex, that is, in itself, enough to shift public opinion. Which is why it’s so important that they not be talking out of their asses. I don’t advocate silencing anyone, but I strongly advocate making celebrities who are dead wrong about important things look dumb to as many people as possible.

    Note that this does not apply to Bono, as the only thing he’s ever been wrong about was the idea that he could carry off a mullet, back in the Eighties.

  46. I get a bit sick of all these rock stars and celebrities myself, Bono included. I tend to wish they would stick to doing what they’re good at.

    I mean, we wouldn’t want to see Boris trying to be a rock singer, would we? Would we?

  47. Which is why it’s so important that they not be talking out of their asses.

    And how might we know, quite separately, whether they are talking out of their asses?

  48. Please don’t misunderstand me: I encourage idiots to express themselves. That’s how we find out they are idiots. But the cult of celebrity is such that often statements by the famous are treated as if they sprang fully-formed from the head of Zeus. One of the failings of Objective Journalism is that it has to present the most moronic statements by completely knuckle-dragging inbreds in exactly the same way as an actually intelligent remark. We need to be able to say something like “Today, Britney Spears called for the abolition of slavery in New Jersey, apparently unaware that said abolition occurred over one hundred years ago.” Too many reports stop where I put the comma.

    And hey, Bono’s good at more than one thing. The record there speaks for itself. He knows how to use celebrity to get good things accomplished, and I think on this he’s to be congratulated.

    As for Boris as a rock star, look here or, for more background, here.

  49. Anyone that tells that patronising smuggins George Monbiot that he is an idiot, as Jeremy Clarkson did, is worthy of resoect even if in other areas he may talk out his posterior aperture.

  50. Nice post Boris but I was very disappointed to hear you say that Brian Haw’s posters “were a disgrace and spoiled the look of the place”. Surely the policies that compelled his protest in the first place are the ‘disgrace’? Could one also say that those babies who have been born mutated by depleted uraniam spoil the look of Iraq?

    What is disgraceful and unforgivable is that our money has been used to fund a gestapo-like night-time raid on a peaceful protester. It is outrageous that the disgusting Ian Blair (I will never call him ‘Sir’) can lie about the cost of this authoritarian operation and remain in his job, while the honourable PC Paddick gets shunted to a desk job because he exposes the mendacity and corruption.

    Britain is no longer a free country. In allowing the Blair regime to decimate English Common Law and take the country to the brink of dictatorship we have disgraced all those ancestors who fought and died for our liberty.

  51. Didn’t Jeremy Clarkson punch Piers Moron in the face? I’m not one for advocating violence as the first port of call in any disagreement but when it comes to journalists especially it would have been so refreshing to have seen that, I would have bought tickets! I can’t stand the bitchy copy these literary mice burden our breakfast tables with when they have a spat between themselves. Good for Clarkson.

    Bytheway, I can’t stand Bono and there’s nothing that makes me want to vomit more than some pansticked faced politician sucking up to the pop music elite. If it really does secure the youngest votes then raise the voting age. They’ll be weaving a party political braodcast into Coronation St next. (or have they already done that?

  52. Dearest Jack, if Clarkson does talk out of his “posterior aperture”, at least it’s more attractive than Prescotts. Now there’s a bloke who talks out of his arse, serves no purpose and isn’t even decorative!

  53. Back to the late Eric Forth and his admirable view that the less the state legislates, the better.

    I hope the next Tory manifesto promises a bill to sweep away a whole load of interfering legislation. In one go people will be allowed to smoke in the pub, go hunting, not wear seatbelts. Feel free to add to the list.

    Responses which say ‘cuh, you suggest legislation to get rid of legislation’ will be ignored on the grounds that they are simplistic.

  54. In allowing the Blair regime to decimate English Common Law and take the country to the brink of dictatorship we have disgraced all those ancestors who fought and died for our liberty.

    I hope the next Tory manifesto promises a bill to sweep away a whole load of interfering legislation. In one go people will be allowed to smoke in the pub, go hunting, not wear seatbelts.

    I entirely agree with both sentiments.

    What is remarkable about so much that is happening these days is that it is being done in response to future and sometimes entirely illusory threats, mostly using intelligence/data which has been ‘cherrypicked’ to provide evidence supporting the threat. We are fighting phantoms and mirages.

    The Iraq war is the great classic. Saddam Hussein was vastly magnified into a terrifying threat to the world. In retrospect, he has been shown to have been no such thing. There were no WMDs, no links to Al Qaeda or to 9/11, nothing. And we have gone and wrecked Iraq for no good reason.

    The same is happening with Iran. Iran is said to pose an equivalent future threat to the world, because it may one day acquire a nuclear weapon, and we must stop it before it does. Yet Pakistan and India have also acquired nuclear weapons and are not regarded as deadly menaces.

    We are told that 9/11 “changed everything”, when it did not.

    We are told we are fighting a “War on Terror” when we are quite manifestly doing no such thing.

    We are told we can’t smoke in pubs, but the evidence of a threat has only been provided by ignoring study after study that shows little or no danger, and using a small number of studies that do.

    We were told Avian ‘flu was coming: it never did.

    We are told there is global warming, and that we must to act to prevent it. But the same scientists who predict it also tell us that there’s not much we can do about it anyway.

    Repeatedly, using rigged, cherrypicked, or inaccurate data, we have scare story after scare story hurled at us. We should ignore them all, and deal with those problems that we face today, not those which me may face in 20 or 50 years time, if we ever face them at all. In short, we should return to the common sense for which we were once renowned.

  55. The government provoke a threat then try to use it to subjugate it’s electorate. Bliar certainly likes power doesn’t he!

  56. Yes, one does find oneself wondering whether it is all being done for purely domestic purposes – particularly given the scene in America where it really does sometimes seem that their democracy is being totally gutted by Bush, using exactly the same method.

  57. I’m no defender of Margaret Thatcher – I think we’re still suffering the consequences – but I’m not sure her Government were as willing to restrict personal freedoms and simple rights of public expression. Mr. Blair and chums have made Parliament increasingly inaccessible, made it difficult to express an opinion without their consent and seek greater powers without Parliamentiary scrutiny. A lot of this is premised on the need to combat the risks of terrorism. But Mrs. Thatcher and John Major were directly attacked by Irish terrorists, and lost friends and colleagues – Airey Neave, Ian Gow, Brighton, the mortar attack on Downing Street during Cabinet. Margaret Thatcher denied them ‘the oxygen of publicity’, she didn’t deny it to other people with a grievance or contrary view. Nor did Major. So why does Blair find it so necessary?

    So, will the Tories have the honesty to repeal a lot of this Government’s legislation? They don’t appear to have the honesty to vocally oppose and make the public fully aware of the Legislative & Regulatory Reform Bill. Yet this has great dangers implicit. Does this mean that we really don’t have a voice at Westminster? No point in voting then.

  58. So why does Blair find it so necessary?

    Because, apparently, “Everything changed after 9/11.” Which, of course, it didn’t. Or at least, no more than everything changed after the Brighton bombing.

    And one does indeed have to credit Thatcher.

    And I see no sign so far of the Tories seeking to roll back the legislation.

  59. I’m still patiently waiting for my pro-Bono piece to be approved by the webmaster. Does this count as restriction of freedom of speech?

  60. I’ve seen no sign of Melissa for a while, raincoaster. And she’s the one that gives these things the nod, I believe.

    I ran into the problem a while back with a long posting. Fortunately, I’d written it using some text editor, and so I just chopped it in half and tried again using two postings. It got posted up immediately. The original followed about 4 days later.

    Of Bono, I think that he is very active in at least one excellent cause – AIDS in Africa -, and can get the ear of more or less any politician he wants about it, and can even make things happen in some degree.

    But I have some reservations about rock stars using their fame/status in these ways, all the same.

  61. Slightly off topic but not much so I don’t altogether apologise for forwarding this to you all.

    Here is URL you might like to look up

    Our next march will take place on Saturday, 3 June in Oxford. The march
    will start at 11.45am at the corner of Parks Road and Broad Street –
    please assemble at 11.30am – and should last about 90 minutes. Speeches
    will take place at Parks Road and outside the lab building site. This will
    be another major, peaceful protest in support of animal research and the
    Oxford lab, and a great chance for you to stand up for science. Please
    spread the word as widely as possible and encourage friends, colleagues
    and relatives to participate. You can download a poster here. Why not
    BYOB: Bring Your Own Banner! If you are interested in helping to steward,
    get in touch!

    We are keen to link up with supporters from outside Oxford. For
    information about travelling to Oxford for the march, or if you are
    thinking about bringing along a group of people to participate, please
    contact us for any advice you may need.

    Pro-Test looks forward to seeing you there!

  62. But idlex, it’s far more amusing to complain about repression of freedom of speech in this thread. It is ONLY freedom of speech supporting Bono, too. So it’s obviously a Tory plot; perhaps I shall file a FOI request for my missing post…

    I think that famous people have as much right to their opinions and freedom of speech as obscure ones; that their remarks are reported more widely means that they’ll have more impact, so when I see someone like Bono, who actually knows what he’s talking about and gets good things accomplished, I want to applaud.

    Also, when I see eedjuts blabbering on and showing how clueless they are, I want to applaud, too, for the world should KNOW they are eedjuts before it takes their advice.

  63. ^
    See, the post is now up. All you have to do is cry “Conservative Conspiracy” and you get what you want.

    A lesson which should be more widely known in my country.

  64. Politician’s opinions are often reported quite widely too, especially senior ones. Yet they need have no more qualifications than celebrities and rock-stars. I suspect Bono could get himself elected pretty quickly if he chose! Would we suddenly give credance to the things that the same man is saying because he’s now an MP?

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